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Corey Payette Brings A Personal Touch to Starwalker

The Indigenous writer, director and composer’s latest passion project revolves around a two-spirit character finding a home in the drag community.

by Ben Boddez

For how deeply integral music and dance are to the long-standing traditions of Indigenous storytelling culture, it’s no more surprising to anyone than writer, director, composer and Mattagami First Nations member Corey Payette that we don’t see more musical theatre productions with an Indigenous focus. With his latest production, Starwalker, he’s hoping to change that – and open up conversations about representation and identity in the process.

“Unless you’re really familiar with Indigenous culture, maybe you wouldn’t know that a story will have a song, that song will have a dance, and that dance will tell a story,” he says. “So, it’s exciting to lean on that and know that this kind of musical is accessible and approachable for all communities. It’s never lost on me the amount of people who see these kinds of stories and say ‘I didn’t know there was space for me there, I didn’t know there was an audience who would want to see this.’ Maybe there will be more Indigenous musicals born from the success of this show.”

Coming off of his critically acclaimed shows Children of God and Les Filles Du Roi, both of which focused on Indigenous issues in historical settings, Starwalker updates his artistic interests in a more modern context – and one that’s closer to his own heart than ever. The show follows a two-spirit person named Star who finds a true family for the first time in the drag community, linking up with East Vancouver’s fictionalized house of Borealis.

Payette, who is two-spirit himself, had the goal of telling a story about a marginalized individual that focuses more on hope and uplifting material. Commissioned and developed by Toronto’s Musical Stage Company and developed in partnership with Urban Ink and Raven Theatre, Payette was essentially allowed to bring whatever story he wanted to tell to the table.

“This show has been in my mind for so many years, and it was really about sharing that love story where the love is tied to your own self-discovery of your own identity, but also the love you find from a chosen family,” he says. “A lot of queer people when maybe family doesn’t accept you, or people in society don’t accept you, you’re able to find a chosen family that allows you to be yourself, celebrated and accepted for who you really are.”

Payette adds that choosing to include drag performance in the show takes things to another dimension, as its popularity has made it a vehicle for queer expression that is equally accessible and poignant. Being able to reflect the diversity within the queer community itself by bringing an Indigenous perspective to the proceedings excites him most of all.

While the show itself will be a joyous occasion – “Look at what’s possible when we heal,” Payette offers as a logline – he hopes that deeper conversations will be sparked by audience members who choose to stick around after the final curtain. Payette is bringing back his trademark “post-show conversation” series, something that he started with Children of God, a musical about residential schools. Payette says that some of his most powerful experiences as a creative were non-Indigenous people telling him after the show that they’d learned something, and would inform their children about the subject as well.

“That’s what it’s always about,” he says. “I’m completely blown away by how people coming to experience a show have their hearts open. They learn a new perspective and see things differently, and you can’t unsee that or unlearn that. You now move through the world in a different way, and things you read and see will resonate differently because you’ve had the chance to experience it through a character like Star. You’ll never look at an Indigenous person who’s struggling with their own identity in the same way, and I think that’s all you can hope for.”

In addition to sitting in the director’s chair, Payette also wrote the script and composed and added lyrics for the songs himself – songs with such excellent titles as “God in Drag, You’re Beautiful” and “Strut That Ass, Honey.” He also reunites with actor Dillan Chiblow, who plays the titular character and also starred in Children of God. As a longtime passion project, he hopes that the novelty of his show will cause it to have a reverberating effect on the theatre landscape at large.

“The cast is phenomenal, they’re a group of super-tenors and they’re just belting up a storm, so I think that people will be blown away by that,” he says. “And another thing is that all my other musicals have been very much traditional classical music, but this time we have pretty much a rock band, and some club music, all paired against this Indigenous contemporary drumming music. It’s all something unique, something I don’t think people will find anywhere else, and it’s really, really fun to be a part of.”

Starwalker opens on February 16, 2023 at the Cultch’s York Theatre in Vancouver.